Hanal Pixán: Day of the Dead Among the Maya

Altar for Hanal Pixan
••• An offering for Hanal Pixan. Creative Commons photo by Adrian Ceballos

Hanal Pixán is the name given to the Day of the Dead celebrations of the Maya people who live in the Yucatan Peninsula. The term literally translates as "food of souls" in the Mayan language. In this region, food takes on a special meaning as traditional dishes are prepared for the spirits who are believed to return on this day to visit their families. The holiday is a way of celebrating and honoring deceased family members and friends.

Many of the traditions surrounding Hanal Pixán are similar to Day of the Dead celebrations in other parts of Mexico. The holiday stretches out over three days. Families set up a table that functions as an offering or altar in their home and also ​go to the cemetery to decorate the graves. They prepare to greet the souls of the departed by cleaning the home as if they were receiving house guests. The spirits of children who have died return on the night of October 31st, and a special offering is prepared for them that will include toys, chocolate, and other sweets. The spirits of adults come on the following night, and there are different items placed for them on the altar, including alcoholic beverages. On the third day (November 2nd), a special mass is said for the souls of the dead.

There are a few beliefs that are common in rural villages: people may tie a red or black string around the wrist of their children, believing that it will protect them from the spirits (although the spirits are not seen as malevolent, they may play tricks or become jealous of babies and small children).

It is also customary to tie up animals that usually roam free, so that the animals will not get in the way of the spirits. 

Foods for Hanal Pixán

The foods that are prepared for Hanal Pixán are unique to the Maya people. This is the main way in which this holiday differs from Day of the Dead traditions in the rest of Mexico, which has its own particular dishes that are associated with the holiday, foods for Day of the Dead.

The most important food for the holiday is mucbipollo. The name of this dish is a composite Mayan and Spanish word. In Mayan muc means buried and bi means baked, and pollo is the Spanish word for chicken. This special dish is similar to a tamal but much larger than a normal tamal. It is made with corn dough and chicken wrapped in banana leaves. Traditionally it's cooked in an underground pit called a pib, though nowadays some people take their mucbipollos to a bakery to be cooked in a wood-fired oven, and others will bake it in their oven at home.

The mucbipollo and other traditional food and drinks are placed on a table that is set up with a tablecloth and candles for the dead to enjoy the essence of the foods. Later, the living will consume what is left. It is also customary to put out a plate for the lonely souls, those who don't have anyone to remember them.

If you go:

If you're lucky enough to be in the Yucatan Peninsula at this time of year, you can enjoy the local customs and traditions associated with the holiday. In Mérida there are numerous altars set up in the Plaza Grande. Head to the cemetery to see how the graves are decorated. If you're in Cancun or the Riviera Maya, plan to go to the Festival de Vida y Muerte at Xcaret Park.

See more Vocabulary Words for Day of the Dead.